Using the Rosenthal Effect to Identify and Develop Talent

Through reading Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, I recently became aware of a study which has interesting application for those of us who are in the business of identifying and developing talent in others. The study was completed in 1963 by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. They experimented with students at an elementary school in San Francisco. They started by issuing an IQ test to all of the students. Without revealing the actual test scores to teachers, they told teachers the names of the 20% of students who were identified as “academic bloomers” and could be expected to outperform other students in learning progress during the upcoming school year. At the end of the year when a follow up IQ test was issued, the students who had been identified as bloomers did indeed significantly outperform others in terms of their increase in IQ.

This was a major validation of Rosenthal’s hypothesis, but not in the way you might think. You see, the bloomers were not chosen by IQ test results; they were chosen randomly. The improvement through the year was therefore not due to anything having to do with the students themselves, but it was instead due to the behaviors of the teachers. The point of the study was to determine whether teachers would treat “bloomers” differently than other students. The fact that bloomers performed so much better than other students indicates that teachers’ knowledge of their status became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers spent more quality time with bloomers, gave them more encouragement, and gave them more extensive feedback. All of the extra attention led to improved learning and better results on the end-of-year test.

This “Rosenthal Effect” is also known as the Pygmalion Effect. It has been demonstrated in other studies outside of the classroom. The general concept is that genuinely higher expectations themselves lead to better performance.

What does this say to us as leaders? How can we use this knowledge to become better at getting the most out of people? What might be the opposite impact of having low expectations of other


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